What Led to the Fall of the Ghana Empire in 1240?


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The Ghana Empire was the earliest of the three major medieval West African kingdoms. After a heyday between the 9th and 11th Centuries, the empire began to decline. The empire relied on control of trade routes, which neighboring powers began to take over. Meanwhile, its central government began to lose control, and local areas gained independent control. Drought and other environmental problems also caused difficulties. The empire ended in 1240, but its “fall” was a process that took place over time. 

The Ghana Empire

In medieval times, three kingdoms in West Africa stood out.  

The earliest was the Ghana Empire, which should not be confused with the country of Ghana. The Ghana Empire arose between the Sahara Desert and the tropical rain forests of the West African Coast. On a map, it would be in the middle of the little bump on the West African coast. 

The Ghana Empire might have begun as early as the 4th or 5th Centuries. The height of its power was the 9th to 11th Centuries. The empire began to decline and ended in 1240.

The “war chief” (ghana) was an absolute monarch with local rulers required to give him tribute. A feudal system arose. Local rulers had some discretion while remaining loyal to the monarch. 

The empire’s wealth came from its natural resources. A large army arose with weapons forged with iron. Traders used gold, salt, and ivory to buy goods from North Africa and the Middle East. Rivers provided means for trade and transportation. 

The people originally had animist beliefs. In time, the spreading power of Muslim rulers led large parts of the empire to follow the path of Muhammad.  

Empire Starts To Decline In Power 

The Ghana Empire began to decline in the mid-11th Century. The reasons are a mixture of internal conflicts and external threats. As the central government became weaker, the empire was a prime target. The neighboring Mali Empire eventually took over its territory.  

[1] Muslim Threats

The Muslim religion has thrived in northern Africa since the 8th century. Ghana developed a good relationship with Muslims, even though the Ghana leaders were not believers.

Nonetheless, in time, the Muslim traders of North Africa began to compete with Ghana for the prime trade routes of the area. The Muslims called themselves the Almoravids. The Almoravids sacked the Ghana capital in 1076. The Ghana people were soon able to regain control.

The invasion, however, weakened the empire. Religious disputes between Muslims and animists helped to divide the people. Other Muslim powers also chipped away Ghana’s territory.  

[2] Trade Problems 

The Ghana Empire’s dominance arose from its control of trade. Egypt, the breadbasket of the Ancient World, had an independent source of food and other fundamental resources. 

Ghana traded to obtain goods, wealth, and power. Over the centuries, surrounding powers started to gain control of the trade routes. Ghana no longer had a trade monopoly.  

The other trading powers began to take over. Ghana became cut off from the international trade of salt, gold, and other prime trading goods. Its source of wealth began to run dry.  

[3] Civil Wars

Running an empire is hard. The central power is required to retain control of far-flung lands. Control requires good leadership, wealth and power, and loyal subject people. 

Over the centuries, the central government of the Ghana Empire weakened. Local areas became more and more independent. Civil wars grew. The central government could not stop them. 

The kingdom of Sosso (1180-1235) was the biggest former vassal that broke apart to form an independent territory. Its defeat led the way to the end of the Ghana Empire. 

[4] Environmental Factors

We worry about greenhouse gases and other environmental problems because of their effects on our health, economy, and overall well-being. Geography has always been fundamental. 

The Almoravids brought flocks into the kingdom. The flocks caused significant damage to the often arid landscape. The animals helped to lead to a disastrous process of desertification

A Ghanese myth tells of Bida, an all-powerful black snake, who demanded an annual sacrifice to guarantee prosperity. All was well until the fiancé of the intended victim deprived Bida of his offering. Bida punished the people with a drought, causing great suffering.  

The myth, like many myths, explains actual historical events. Droughts began to inflict on the land in the 12th Century. The empire’s ability to sustain farming and cattle declined. 

End of the Ghana Empire 

Historians usually cite 476 as the date of the fall of the Roman Empire. Odoacer, a Germanic king, defeated the final emperor of the West. The Middle Ages had begun. 

The fall of the Roman Empire was a process that spanned a much more extended period. Rome “fell” over time (centuries) because of challenges from within and without.  

The “fall” of the Ghana Empire was likewise not something that happened in 1240 because the originator of the Mali Empire defeated them in a great battle. The empire crumbled over centuries because of many problems, including civil wars, drought, and new trade routes.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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